(Warning: The following article was written to entertain rather than to offend. However we acknowledge that it contains language and views that some may find objectionable. Reader discretion is advised.)
So as part of this series of blogs I’ve been asked to contribute something in regards to the visual development of our game Sub-Species. Now I could spend the next few paragraphs prattling on about creature and environment design, polygon counts, high resolution textures and the like. Instead of all that turgid crap, I’m going to tell you about two of the many games that have influenced the look and gameplay of our current project. Allow me to introduce you to a couple of Megadrive classics, Ecco the Dolphin and Sub-Terrania.
Its not better down where its wetter.
Ecco the Dolphin is a difficult game to describe. It doesn’t fit neatly in to any genre or category. At a time in the early 90s when every game was the next Sonic or Street Fighter, Ecco was that rarest of things; original.
The games story begins with Ecco playing happily with his family doing... dolphin stuff, mostly swimming I’m guessing. When suddenly a freak storm violently pulls Ecco's family and the other surrounding life into the sky.
As the story unfolds it dawns on you that the plot is a work of insane, psychoactive substance fuelled genius. This game is a towering middle finger to reality, and is all the better for it.
For example, during his quest Ecco is asked by a creature that resembles a double helix D.N.A. strand, to go to Atlantis and use their time machine (because of course they have a time machine) to travel back in time to the Jurassic period where this happens.
“Fuck you Reality!”
Yes, that’s a time travelling dolphin using a pteranadon as a hang glider. Why this amazing image wasn’t used as the basis for a spectacular piece of box art still remains a mystery to me.
Game play consists of exploring mazes, solving puzzles and using short bursts of speed to ram enemies. About halfway through the game, Ecco's sonar becomes a much needed projectile weapon, turning you in to an underwater version of Banshee from the X-Men comics.
“Unfortunately, underwater Wolverine never made it in to the game”
The collective hallucination that is this game starts to turn weird (sorry, weirder) towards its conclusion. It turns out aliens called the Vortex are behind the storms and the disappearance of Ecco's family. They have a taste for sea food, and dolphin is on the menu.
Ecco fights his way through the Alien infrastructure called “The Machine” which looks like a journey through the work of swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger (seriously it looks amazing). This culminates in a battle with the giant disembodied head of the Vortex Queen. To defeat her you must SCREAM AT HER EYES UNTIL THEY EXPLODE.
“Enjoy your Nightmare”
Defeating the Queen ends the Vortex threat and returns Ecco and his family to Earth.
So that’s Ecco the Dolphin. Give it a go, its like nothing you have ever played. Both it and its equally bat shit crazy sequel, The Tides of Time (Where you travel forward in time to a point where dolphins have evolved wings) are well worth tracking down.
Harder than an Aroused Robot
If a Dolphin that commits Genocide isn’t your thing (and why wouldn’t it be?) then perhaps Sub-Terrania may be for you. Sub-Terrania is a shooter, but unlike a lot of the mindless shoot-em-ups that proliferated the Megadrive at the time, it has elements of puzzle solving and strategy that made it stand out from its contemporaries.
The game was nicely polished with some really impressive music and graphics, but the thing that stuck with me the most was its punishing difficulty. This games threshold for mistakes is lower than the Vatican City's age of consent.
“Until quite recently it was twelve”
Like a twelve year old in the Vatican you’ll be under threat from all directions, but your biggest danger comes from the gravity that is constantly pulling your ship down. To counter the gravitational pull you use your ship's thrusters, but this eats away at your fuel. Resupplying fuel and health can be done but supplies are limited, knowing when to and when not to stock up are key to success.
Luckily there is a map screen to help you out, but this game isn’t interested in helping you, it wants to dick with you. The map appears once before the start of each level. You have no way of seeing it during the game, you know, when you need it.
“Just look up the map on the internet” or “Take a picture of the map with your phone” I hear you say. Remember, we're playing this in 1993. The Internet only exists in the occasional episode of Tomorrows World (ask your parents) and the smartest thing in the room is not your phone, its you, and that’s why your fucked.
“Two options; burn it to your memory or develop cartography skills”
Everything in this game will either damage or kill you outright. Obvious stuff like aliens shooting crap in all directions and robots that punch you out of the sky. Then there is the not so obvious. Like coming into contact with any walls in the cave your flying around in, this will damage your ship at an alarming rate. Running out of fuel, that will kill you. Little bouncy bastard robots that deliberately push you into the walls, instant death.
“Oh, the triple conjoined floating murder head, that’s also on the 'avoid' list”
So Sub-Terrania is nine levels of punishing gameplay. It dispenses with any password or save system, because that would be verging on helpful, remember this game doesn’t like you and wants you to suffer.
Saying all that though, its a really fun game to play. Completing a level feels incredibly rewarding, as you know nothing came easily. Finishing the game however instils a sense of smug, self satisfaction usually reserved for completing the Portal games.
For more information about the Ecco series, head to somecallmejonny's YouTube channel. His review here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBInc6kp5iI is well worth checking out.
And for a display of flying skill usually reserved for Red Arrow pilots, you should take a look at this amazing Sub-Terrania speed run race from SpeedDemosArchiveSDA;
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WE5gc2jY8E proving that everything looks easy when you know how.
(Image credits: YouTube)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the collective views or opinions of Howling Hamster Games.)